Friday, July 30, 2021

My Interview With Carl Smith, Author of Chicago's Great Fire: Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City

When I heard there was a new book on the Great Chicago Fire, I had to get it. I’ve always been fascinated by the fire because it occurred on the same date (October 8, 1871) as the less famous, but larger and more deadly, Peshtigo Fire, which started near where I grew up in Northern Wisconsin. The book, Chicago’s Great Fire:  The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City by Carl Smith is a wonderful review of the fire and its aftermath. The author is the Franklyn Bliss Snyder Professor of English and American Studies and a Professor of History, Emeritus at Northwestern University. I had an opportunity to interview Dr. Smith for On the Brink and I hope you enjoy our written conversation below. Chicago’s Great Fire is available from Grove Atlantic Press here.

Brinkmann:  I really enjoyed reading Chicago’s Great Fire. I have always been interested in the fire because I grew up in the area where the Peshtigo fire occurred on the same date in Wisconsin. Many lost their lives in both fires and there are amazing stories of survival and recovery in both instances. The fires continue to fascinate and provide lessons for us. What inspired you to take on this big project?


The author, Carl Smith.
Smith:  I’m an urban cultural historian who focuses on the great age of American urbanization, which really accelerated starting about 1830 or 1840, and with Chicago being the central example.  And I am especially interested in what I call the infrastructure of ideas, the views of the world that people live in as much as they live in the physical built environment.  The two infrastructures are closely related.  I became particularly interested in moments of crisis like the fire for the way they both revealed and altered both the physical and mental worlds in which city people lived.  To put this another way, I like to study moments of crisis through the eyes of people living in cities in order to understand how these affected their views of experience and how changes in ideas mattered.


Brinkmann:  One of the things that strikes me about both the Peshtigo and Chicago Fires is that they both occurred as a result of human agency. In the Peshtigo Fire, much of Northern Wisconsin, just prior to the fire, experienced a wide swath of regional deforestation--with much of the timber heading for Chicago. The left-behind-limbs made for ready fire fuel. In the Chicago fire, the massive population boom in the middle of the 19th century caused rapid expansion of vast acres of wood-framed housing, commercial, and industrial buildings. While it seems there was plenty of warning of the risk of fire to Chicagoans before the fire, the building of wood buildings went on apace. Why do you think there was so little interest in reducing the conditions that led to the fire in Chicago?


Smith:  Chicago was a place in a great hurry, and wood was a cheap, conveniently located, and remarkable flexible resource for building up a city in a hurry.  Chicago was so fixated on a bigger and better future that it paid relatively little attention to today.  In defense of Chicago, it was hardly the only wooden and fire-prone city. Nineteenth-century city building in many respects involved the transformation of wood from trees to cities and towns.  With plenty of fires.


Brinkmann:  Given that this is a sustainability blog, I have to draw parallels between the Chicago and Peshtigo fires and what we are seeing today with climate change and with the destruction of natural environments. Did you see these parallels as you were working on the book?


Smith:  Besides a few eloquent voices like that of George Perkins Marsh, I don’t think many Americans in the decades before the fire were thinking much about sustainability.  The key link is a focus on the supposed needs of today without sufficient thought to the consequences even of practices we know jeopardize tomorrow.


Click for image credit.
Brinkmann:  One interesting aspect of the book is that you note how often people of the lower classes were either scapegoated or victimized by the fire and its aftermath. You point out that Mrs. O’Leary was really more of a scapegoat than an originator of the fire and you demonstrate that wealthy elites who managed the relief operations after the fire made actual real help very difficult to get. My favorite example is how one group, upset with throngs waiting to apply for assistance outside of the headquarters of the agency, decided to require individuals to apply in writing via mail. Of course, many who needed help didn’t have the ability to write which left them without access to aid. What happened in Chicago after the fire seems to have echoes of similar events in other cities around the world around the same time. How intentional was class struggle a theme in your book? 


Smith:  I think that class conflict was so obviously there that I would have had to intended to ignore it.  And do not overlook ethnic conflict, though class and ethnic differences correlated a great deal.  The term “class struggle” has implications of Marxist rhetoric, and while his ideas were rapidly spreading, I think what we see more of in Chicago at the time of the fire is conflict in terms of fair treatment of workers, not the rise of the proletariat, though mainstream newspapers and business leaders did not hesitate to describe any worker protest as communism, knowing this was an effective rhetorical tactic.  


The inside of the Peshtigo Fire Museum.
Click for image credit.
Brinkmann:  I remember as a child visiting the Peshtigo Fire Museum which houses an impressive collection of artifacts from that famous fire. The materials that they have on display are shocking representations of the fire’s strength and the amount of loss that occurred. Plus, if you knew where to look, you could see remnants of the fire’s destruction in some areas of the region. While Chicago has some scattered collections from the fire (most notably at the Chicago History Museum), it seems that there isn’t one single site that fully memorializes the fire. Certainly there is the memorial at the Quinn Fire Academy—which aptly is located at the site of what was the O’Leary home--and the collections at the Chicago History Museum. But few buildings or artifacts exist from the era that are part of the consciousness of the city. I would argue that because of this, the Peshtigo fire looms larger in the minds of folks in northern Wisconsin than the Chicago Fire does in the minds of Chicagoans. Indeed, due to the fire quickly and early entering the realm of myth with the Cycloramas that depicted the fire as part of entertainment shortly after the fire (especially during the Columbian Exhibition of 1893) and the caricature representations of Mrs. O’Leary by everyone from cartoonists to Norman Rockwell, it is hard to orient the reality of the fire in the public’s imagination. Real and tangible evidence of the fire is hard to find. Do you agree with this and how do you think today’s Chicagoans view the fire today?


The Water Tower.
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Smith:  I have actually thought a good deal about why there is no real fire memorial.  The closest Chicago has is an unofficial one, the Water Tower, and that really commemorates not the fire but the city’s resilience in the face of such a tremendous challenge.  Chicago quickly integrated the fire into the idea that it was indestructible.  There were attempts to erect memorials, but they didn’t go very far.  As part of its current reconstruction project, the Chicago History Museum is putting an enormous piece of melted iron—supposedly the inventory of a hardware store—on prominent outdoor display right next to it.  I’m not sure Chicagoans of today think about the fire very much, and when they do they think of it in terms of the O’Leary legend and the city’s remarkable recovery, not the destruction and loss.


Brinkmann:  One of the great sayings that came out of the fire was “I Will” which was carved on a bust of an Amazonian warrior that represented Chicago at the Columbian Exhibition and that was used again on an art deco poster that celebrated the semi-centennial of the fire in 1921. It seems that some of the meaning of the “I Will” represented a range of boosterish feelings about rebuilding Chicago. But to me, it also represents some of the intent of local government to make tough decisions after the fire regarding zoning and safety standards. What do you think made the “I Will” statement so enduring in the decades after the fire?  


Smith:  I don’t think people associate I Will much with the fire any more, to the extent that they think of it at all.  And I don’t think they think of it in terms of hard decisions, but more in terms of another Chicago self-affirming idea, that it is “the city that works.”  It is related to a self-conception of Chicago as a place where determination and hard work conquers all, whether or not that is true, that nothing can lick Chicago.


Brinkmann:  Over the years, I spent quite a bit of time doing field work in northern California and I could take you to the places where Santa Rosa dumped all of the debris from the destruction that occurred in that city after the 1906 earthquake. The Marina District of San Francisco is largely underlain by debris from that city’s earthquake and subsequent fire. After 9-11, much of what was left from the Twin Towers ended up in landfills in New Jersey, while large pieces of the building exist as memorials all over the New York Region. What happened to all the stuff left over from the Chicago Fire?


Bob Brinkmann in Millennium Park.
Smith:  As I discuss in the book, a good deal of it was dumped into Lake Michigan near where Grant and Millennium Parks are today, filling the lagoon that had been created when in the early 1850s the Illinois Central erected a trestle and breakwater a few hundred yards out in the lake in order to get access to the city.  The building of the breakwater was in exchange for obtaining this right of way.  Much of Chicago, especially along the lakefront, is fill.  Many other cities are substantially built on fill.  You mentioned San Francisco.  Boston is close to two-thirds filled land.  A significant number of bricks were reused.  If you look at the photo on the cover of my book, you will see on the right what I think is a bin of salvaged bricks.


Brinkmann:  I always love to understand an author’s writing processes. I tend to be very regimented when I write and create daily word count goals. I also like to write very early in the morning before my brain turns to mush from the day’s activities. Writing such an impressive book as Chicago’s Great Fire must have taken some discipline and strategy. Could you share your approach?


Smith:  I had the great advantage that when I wrote this book I was retired from my long-time position as a professor, so I could arrange my hours as I wished.  I am more dogged than disciplined, that is, I work away on a project but I don’t have specific hours when I write, though it’s usually in the daytime, between mid-morning and late afternoon.  I’m a very early riser, but I find it difficult to sit down first thing and write.  The other issue is figuring out when you research and when you write.  I have usually come close to completing my research before writing, but in this book I found myself stopping to explore certain things further as they came up and then returning to writing.  And I am a rewriter.  This book went through close to two dozen different versions, and I was editing it up to the last minute.


Brinkmann:  I noted in your acknowledgements that you thanked several undergraduate students for assistance along with many others professionals at museums and universities. I was really impressed that you singled out undergraduate students for their support. Could you tell my readers a little bit about the support they gave to the project and the way you like to work with students?


Smith:  As a professor at Northwestern I was very fortunate in multiple ways.  I had very good students and there were resources available to pay them for their help.  They have been particularly good in assisting me in moving through large amounts of material in search of certain information.  A key example here is their reading daily newspapers in search of articles on particular subjects, e.g., the fire, and then reporting on what they find.  I am indeed indebted to them.  And I’m very proud that a number have gone on to successful careers in academia or related fields, such as librarianship.


Brinkmann:  Is there anything you wish to say about the book that I haven’t asked you?


Smith:  Only that I think the story of Chicago’s destruction by fire and its rebuilding is a wonderfully rich one, and I hope that I have told it well.

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